Writing the history of Science Fiction art

Chapter title: “A Century of Science Fiction Art: Historical Overview to About 1975”
Author: Robert Weinberg
Title: Science Fiction And Fantasy Artists Of The Twentieth Century: A Biographical Dictionary
Editor: Jane Frank

Incredibly helpful and simultaneously frustrating essay by Robert Weinberg opens this comprehensive biographical dictionary of American and British science fiction artists and illustrators.  The idea that one must collect every name and their own personal history into one space is another sign of the collector-ethic that is pervasive throughout the semi-professional history of science fiction.  It compliments works like James Gunn and Isaac Asimov’s Alternate Worlds: The Illustrated History of Science Fiction by compiling a lot of information about the individuals who make up the science fiction illustration field (whereas Alternate Worlds loosely classifies and broadly historicizes science fiction writers and movements by categories like “aliens” and “robots” and “alternative worlds”).  

Weinberg’s strengths are that he discusses the production of science fiction art as part of a material history of publishing.  Beginning with Albert Robida, a French illustrator of Jules Verne, he ties science fiction artwork to science fiction magazine publishing through the end of the 19th and into the 20th Century.  Indeed, from the perspective of this essay, the history of science fiction artwork is not necessarily the history of sf literature, but rather the history of science fiction periodicals. Technological developments in periodical, newspaper, and print publishing (and the expansion and contract of those fields) translated into changes in sf art. The advent of “pulp” magazines (publications that used cheap wood paper) not only transformed the landscape of publishing in the US, but also created a need for eye-catching cover illustration to draw in readers.  These illustrators came from the newspaper world as photographs began to dominate over illustrations in newspress.  Thus the first style of cover design was “accurate, crisp illustrations for reproduction on inexpensive paper” like Joseph Clement Coll’s work. This expanded into the technically detailed (and architecturally inspired) Amazing Stories covers by Frank R. Paul in the mid 1920s, that, due to his training in architecture, better illustrated complex mechanical structures than people.  In the 1930s new periodicals entirely devoted to science fiction abounded, and the art styles diversified in order to fit on smaller format seven by ten inches magazines, with artists’ subject matter diversifying to differentiate publications.  Wesso’s paintings for Astounding Stories featured more action and more complex human subjects.  J. Allen S. John, who originally began illustrating for Edgar Rice Burroughs’ adventure stories, contributed action-oriented fantasy art for Weird Tales, while fashion designer Margaret Brundage introduced the “voluptuous woman clad in scanty garments” style to sf covers. These covers all illustrated a dramatic scene of the novels appearing in the magazine, and became increasingly revealing of plot twists and crisis points.  

Due to another boom in magazine publishing in the 1940s, artists were increasingly in demand and they artwork they created was increasingly varied.  These artists were also the first who were themselves science fiction fans, and the artwork changed its character due to their own interests.  The last and probably most important trend for my research is the influx of non-SF or non-magazine staff illustrators who took up the brush in the 1960s, coming from the avant guard and surrealist schools of art to illustrate the more surreal and socially transformative science fiction. 

Weinberg points out this expansion drew artists in part because they could make a living at illustration – science fiction book publishing well into the 1960s was not a wide enough field to support an illustrator dedicated to science fiction artwork alone, but the magazines provided not only space for experimentation, but financial support.  

Unfortunately this essay often loses track of major trends in science fiction art in favor of focusing on the history of this shifting publication marketplace.  In part this is likely due to the diversity of subjects – but Weinberg also assumes an acquaintance with the works of certain artists and so doesn’t bother to describe them (St. John is a perfect example).  Additionally the criticism occasionally veers into the “good/bad” binary without offering particular or detailed criticism of an artists work. It becomes a history of names and assumption of an acquaintance with an illustrator’s individual style.  Frustratingly the discussion of non-American art is entirely absent, except for a very few comments about particularly popular British illustrators.  The science fiction world is constructed entirely as American and occasionally British – which would be fine except that it purports to be comprehensive and originally pays homage to French illustrators. 



About kathrynpagel

Working on my PhD in Japanese literature, visual studies, and new media.
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